Much has been written about the formulation, meaning, and interpretation of the three questions that are asked and answered in connection with the baptism of children in Reformed churches. Throughout the years they have been storm-centers of debate. Even today there is no unanimity of opinion concerning the precise meaning of some of the phrases.
In our last article we considered the first of these questions, in which the parents are asked to acknowledge the covenantal relationship between the Lord and their children as the ground for baptism. Confession is made that the child is conceived and born in sin. Yet the parents affirm that he is also “sanctified in Christ.” Infant baptism does not rest on the whims or sentiments of men, but on the covenant relation which God establishes and maintains between Himself and His people in Christ.
In the second question of baptism the parents are asked before the whole church to make confession of their faith. On the surface this request might seem to be redundant since only believing parents are permitted to present their children in baptism and believing parents are those who already have confessed their faith before the church. However, this redundancy is obliterated when we remember that the Word and Sacraments are inseparable, and it is in this confession of the parents that these two are beautifully blended. Moreover, in connection with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper the whole congregation is called upon to make confession of faith, and this is most proper. In fact, in a sense the very celebration of the sacraments by the church is a confession of her faith and there is nothing improper about expressing this in a specific form. It appears that the criticism of redundancy here stems from the mistaken idea that confession of faith is a momentary act which is performed generally by young people and on a very special occasion. This notion must be eradicated from our thinking and substituted with the truth that confession of faith is a constant, life-long expression and practice. It is not with the mouth alone that confession is made, but our daily walk of life is a perpetual witness and testimony of the doctrines we believe. Unavoidably our concept of the Word of God is reflected in the things we say and do. On the occasion of the baptism of our children, the parents are simply asked to reaffirm this confession before the church when the question is put to them: “Do you acknowledge the doctrine which is contained in the Old and New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and which is taught here in this Christian Church, to be the true and perfect (volkomene . . . complete) doctrine of salvation?”
A few observations are to be made concerning the content of this question. In the first place, it is to be noted that the parents here are asked to express that there is a fundamental and essential agreement between the doctrines of Scripture, those of the articles of the Christian faith and the teachings of the church. These three agree in one. This is essential, for without this unity it is impossible to make profession of faith without violating intellectual and spiritual honesty.
In the second place, the essential unity of the Old and New Testament is confessed. The Scriptures are one. The revelation of God, as the God of our salvation, as unveiled through the ages, is a complete revelation of the one work of God which He realizes in Christ according to the sovereign good pleasure of His will. All the truths of both the Old and New Testament have relevancy when understood in the light of the central plan and purpose of God with all things.
Thirdly, although the expression “articles of the Christian faith” undoubtedly refers to the Apostolic Confession, parents are asked here to subscribe to a specific interpretation of the articles of this creed. The creed itself, containing twelve articles of faith, is very general. So general is it, in fact, that it has often been proposed that all other creeds be discarded and the entire Christian Church unite on the basis of this confession. After all, Roman Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Reformed, etc. all profess to subscribe to the articles of the Apostolic Creed. However, the fact is that among the various denominations there are again as many varying interpretations of this creed. There is no essential unity at all; and, therefore, when parents answer this second question, it is not agreement with a general creed that they express; but rather it must be a confession of agreement with the specific interpretation of these articles in the church where the baptism takes place that is made.
Fourthly, this is in accord with the expressed agreement with the doctrines that are taught here in this Christian church. This statement has been a real bone of contention and given occasion often to disputes and debates in the church. The Arminians, when having their children, baptized in Reformed Churches, had difficulty with it and naturally objected to the formulation as it appears in our Baptism Form. They preferred to change this to read: “the doctrines taught in the Christian church.” Others prefer to interpret it to refer to the Reformed faith in general, without defining specifically the content of that faith. Not so many years ago there were those who were members of the Protestant Reformed Churches, but who in heart were in agreement with the doctrine of the Liberated Churches and, consequently, refused to answer this question when they were to have their children baptized. Of course, such refusal to answer the question makes it impossible for them to have theirchildren baptized; but it nevertheless is to be noted that such honest refusal is to be more highly commended than the practice of using the sacrament under false pretenses. Naturally, however, if a person cannot use the sacraments in a given church because he cannot agree with the doctrines taught in that church, his membership therein is also jeopardized; and unless he is willing to be further instructed so that either he may be convinced or he may show the church her doctrinal error, he has but one recourse. He must seek affiliation with a church with which he is in agreement doctrinally. There he can have his children baptized in harmony with his conviction. And we must never lose sight of the fact that the Baptism Form itself requires that, as parents, we give answer to these questions sincerely. In administering the sacraments, therefore, emphasis must be placed upon the phrase “here in this Christian church”; and in the Protestant Reformed Churches this means that we subscribe to and express agreement with the doctrines of Scripture and the Confessions as taught in the Protestant Reformed Churches. On this point there may be left no room for misunderstanding.
To delineate and define these doctrines does not belong to our rubric. We may state in passing, however, that our Three Forms of Unity are explicit in this respect; and on those controversial points concerning which differences have arisen regarding interpretations of these Confessions, we may refer our readers to the Declaration of Principles adopted some fourteen years ago by our Synod as a basis for the organization of Protestant Reformed Churches. And we might add that subscribing to the doctrines of the Protestant Reformed Churches does not force one into a negative position. When one asks the question: “What do the Protestant Reformed Churches believe?” we should not answer this by saying: “These churches deny common grace.” Though this answer is true, it is not complete and it lacks a positive approach. Rather let us point out that we believe in the absolute sovereignty of God as applied to all things, but particularly to the truth of predestination and, implicit therein, the doctrine is of primary importance, not only because of its distinctive character as promulgated in the Protestant Reformed Churches, but because of its paramount significance as related to the baptism of our children.
Finally, parents confess that this is “the true and perfect doctrine of salvation.” This does not mean or imply that “perfectionism” in doctrine has been attained by the church. Such an implication would stifle all incentive on the part of the church to search out more fully the things of God’s revelation. Rather, as indicated by the footnote where the Dutch word‘volkomene . . . complete’ is found, it means that the doctrines set forth completely and correctly convey the truth of salvation. There is nothing deficient or lacking here. Moreover, this confession also implies the admission that ‘doctrine’ is not simply the intellectual formulation of various opinions, but it is the way of life. It is not an abstract collection of ideas but it very realistically prescribes the way of salvation. Consequently, confessing the doctrine of the church is not the same as expressing intellectual agreement with a certain thing. It necessarily implies this, butconfession is more. To confess is to believe, and believing means that with all our heart we embrace these doctrines as the way of life. In them we desire to be instructed under the preaching of the Word so that we may, through the grace of God, more and more bring our lives, in every sphere, in conformity with the truth.
And this brings us to our final consideration of this second question, which has to do with its relation to the question that follows. It is not at all difficult to see that these two questions are related. The former serves as preparatory to and the basis for the latter. First we are called upon to express our agreement with the doctrines taught in this Christian Church and then we are asked to promise to instruct our children in those doctrines to the utmost of our power. Since we believe that these doctrines prescribe the way of life and salvation, and apart from this way there is nothing but death and desolation, we, in our confession before the church, not only acknowledge our desire to walk in accord with those doctrines and in this way enjoy the blessings of life; but it follows as a natural and logical sequence that we desire the same for our children, the children that we present in baptism.
Consequently it follows that if one is unable to answer the second question affirmatively, he is also unable to answer the last question. One cannot possibly intend to instruct his children according to doctrines he himself does not believe. This they will not do either; and so, before the vow of baptism is applied directly in the final question to the baptism of children, emphasis must be placed upon that second question. And unless it is fully agreed, parents, that this is the doctrine and this is the way of life, let us proceed no further. Only when we understand this are we prepared to face, assume, and carry out the very serious responsibilities that are ours in the baptism of our children. These, D.V., we will begin to discuss in connection with the final question of the Baptism Form in the next issue.